Israel reopened a main crossing with the Gaza Strip on Thursday to allow thousands of Palestinian laborers to enter the country for the first time in over a week, a move that eased tensions between Israel and the Palestinian enclave.
The opening of the crossing was a sign of de-escalation after two weeks of violent protests along Gaza's frontier with Israel, where Palestinian demonstrators have thrown explosives and rocks and launched incendiary balloons that have sparked fires in Israeli farmland.
The outbreak of protests came as the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza, cash-strapped as its financial crisis worsens, slashed the salaries of its civil servants by nearly half this month. Political analysts have described the protests at the separation fence as an attempt by Hamas to wring concessions from Israel and the militant group's financial patron, Qatar.
Hamas insists that it never called for the protests, though it gave the rallies tacit consent. In response to the turmoil on the frontier, the Israeli military launched airstrikes targeting Hamas militant posts for several days in a row.
A flurry of diplomacy over the last few days involving Egypt, Israel, Qatar and Hamas resulted in an informal agreement to defuse the situation, officials said.
Qatar’s representative in Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, said that the emirate had “succeeded in de-escalating the situation in the Gaza Strip by mediating an understanding” to reopen the crossing for workers.
“The situation in the Gaza Strip is dire, and another conflict will only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis,” he said.
An official in Gaza familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said that Israel promised Hamas a number of concessions. The measures included Israel raising the number of workers' permits it issues for laborers in Gaza, expanding the fishing zone off Gaza's coast and allowing the enclave to export more goods and import more equipment, he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the understandings with Hamas.
Late on Wednesday, the Israeli defense body that deals with Palestinian civil affairs, known as COGAT, confirmed the crossing would reopen — and other economic measures would resume — in exchange for calm.
After the Erez crossing reopened, Palestinians in Gaza appeared to keep their side of the bargain as protest organizers announced they would suspend the daily rallies. They vowed to resume protests if Israel did not adhere to its commitments.
A spokesperson for Hamas, Hazem Qassem, welcomed the move, saying the closure of the crossing had been a form of “collective punishment."
“It is the right of our people in the Gaza Strip to enter and exit freely,” Qassem added.
The Erez crossing is the sole pedestrian passageway out of the coastal enclave into Israel for the roughly 18,000 Palestinians from Gaza who work in Israel. Jobs in Israel are in high demand, paying up to 10 times as much as similar jobs in Gaza. Unemployment in the territory, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007, hovers at 50%.
Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas from arming itself. But the closure has choked off Gaza’s economy and made life increasingly difficult for the more than 2 million people who live there.
It’s not clear how long the Erez crossing would remain open. The Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins at sundown Friday and Israel typically closes crossings during holidays.
Large crowds of religious Jews are expected to visit a contested Jerusalem holy site during the weeklong holiday, raising fears that tensions with Palestinians could soon resurge — whether in the sensitive Jerusalem compound or along the separation fence between Israel and Gaza.
But for now, workers in Gaza who consider their Israeli work permits a lifeline felt some brief relief. The dayslong crossing closure had been a “nightmare," said Mohammad al-Kahlout, a laborer waiting to cross into Israel on Thursday.
“It felt like someone was trying to suffocate you,” he said.